Monday, May 31, 2010

Why Stay in Africa?

Since Bob’s death, many people have asked whether or not I will stay in Africa. My response has pretty much been, “I will stay in Africa until God tells me differently.” The calling that we had to Africa was one given to both Bob and myself, as a couple and as individuals. Because I believe I still have work to do here, I will stay. But as with any good question, it does make me think. Beyond feeling called, why do I want to stay in Africa? Why do I not want to live in North America? Additionally, I have recently had a number of people ask me what exactly I do in Africa. I will address that question next time.

The truth is that I like Africa better than North America (and Bob did as well). Our plan was to stay after the kids go to college, but be able to move away from the capital cities that we find ourselves in due to schools or Internet needs, to more remote areas. My hope has always been to be able to move to a village and learn to live very simply. I don’t know if words or even pictures can answer why I like it better. The first time we landed in Liberia in 2004, it didn’t take me long to turn to Bob and say, “I feel like I’m home.” I don’t know where that came from. Obviously, not everyone who visits Liberia feels that way or there would be a population explosion. So what is it?

I would have to say that the predominant reason is that life feels so real here; the struggle for survival is palpable and in your face. I am reading a book called, The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz who talked about what struck her when she visited Uganda, “I couldn’t recall ever feeling so fully alive getting ready for a day…there was a rawness and a beauty here that brought every emotion right to the surface, and I loved the feeling, loved being in this place where the best and worst of everything seemed to coexist…I was stunned by the resilience of everyone I met…and was awestruck by the Ugandans’ ability to endure suffering and still embrace great joy.” I certainly resonate with her words. I love driving down a road that is packed with human beings involved in so many aspects of life – conversing, selling, buying, cooking, doing laundry, bathing, arguing, crying, and laughing – so many people laughing. I often can’t believe how many people I see laughing. The best and worst coexisting – poverty, struggle for survival, and yet laughter and a seeming contentment.

I love living in a community with open windows - all the time, everyone, 24/7, 365 days per year. You hear life around you constantly, you smell what others are cooking, you hear which baby is sick by the crying, you hear children laughing and arguing, adults conversing, dogs barking, roosters crowing. As I drive into more remote areas, I look with curiosity and longing at the villages, wondering what life is like for them, wanting to experience what they do - the closeness and struggles that they face.

I remember when we moved back from Liberia to the US, pulled into the garage of the rented house we were using, closed the garage door behind us and entered the home. The silence was deafening. I remember how Bob and I looking at each other, wondering at the silence and how empty it was. Driving down the streets in Grand Rapids, there were very few people out. Everyone in cars. No wonder we turn so much to the TV to get a sense of community.

I feel more alive here. I feel closer to God. I feel closer to my neighbor. In fact, it’s easier for me to figure out who my neighbor is here. I am less tempted by my own wants and desires. There is less to do and therefore more opportunity to be. Every day, as I go about my work and my natural sinful nature wants to complain, within seconds I am reminded of how blessed I am. I can’t feel sorry for myself here for very long, despite the difficulties in doing the simplest of tasks. I am more grateful for life, for health, for food, for water.

Sometimes people tell me that they think I’m strong for living in Africa. I often think that I am too weak to live the way God has called me to live in America. This place is easier for me.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone reading it. These pictures might help. Take time to look at the faces.

These children are hard at work with palm nuts. Not an easy job. Yet they laugh freely.

These children are carrying babies on their back yet still finding joy in play.

Women working together.

These children don't appear to have much but look at smiles and the laughter.